We all know a Karen. We've seen them in America's tree-lined, manicured suburbs asking to speak with the manager because the grilled chicken on their Caesar salad is too cold. Sporting Kate Gosselin's haircut circa 2009, the most benign Karens lambaste part-time Home Depot employees for having the wrong shade of taupe paint; the worst Karens leverage their white privilege to harass people of color. Entitlement, whiteness, privilege, always having to be correct — and being a woman — embody the idea of the "Karen," a pejorative that was coined in online discourse in the late 2010s but became prominent in 2020. Sarah Miller, writing in the New York Times, defined Karens as "middle-aged white moms who are always asking for the manager and calling the police on perfectly fine pool parties and wondering why kids are so obsessed with their identities."
Like any cultural phenomenon, much Karen name-calling and Karen-shaming is waged online. In articles, memes, and artifact-ridden JPEGs posted on Twitter and Facebook, Karens asking to speak with the manager run rampant across our laptop screens and beyond. The concept of the "Karen" has entered the popular lexicon to the extent that it is making its way into public policy. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed the "CAREN Act" (Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies) in July, an allusion to the pejorative. Women with the name Karen are reportedly less likely to get dates online because of the stereotypes associated with their name.
While the origins of the Karen meme are unclear, some believe it originated from a Dane Cook comedy special that aired in 2005. Yet the term also has connections to the phrase "Miss Ann," a term was used by African-American slaves to refer to a condescending European-American woman, as André Brock, a professor at Georgia Tech, told CNN. As Karen Attiah further explained in an op-ed for the Washington Post, "Becky and Karen memes and jokes should be understood in this context, part of a long tradition to use humor to try to cope with the realities of white privilege and anti-blackness." Indeed, the pejorative's history is rooted in the many horrible ways white privilege can be weaponized by white women.
Recently, the term has begun to transcend gender. Anyone can be a Karen, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk, if their appearance is feminized and amended with the Gosselin bob. Last month, when Musk seemed to misunderstand how his COVID-19 test worked, a scientist mocked him and called him "Space Karen."
But as the Karen meme entered the mainstream, it mutated. Specifically, it's gone from being hyper-specific to a slur that has become synonymous with merely "bad," "shrill," "a woman I don't like," or perhaps "a man who acts like an entitled woman."
Much as the word "socialism" has become meaningless to much of the right, spouted as a catch-all slur for anyone or anything on the left they don't like, a certain (mostly male) subset has begun Karen-baiting any women they don't like — even if she doesn't embody Karenesque traits.
Yet Karen-ifying everyone these days is often a dodge. In many cases, memes about Karens come off as instances of bald-faced sexism, disconnected from the original meme, distracting from the issues that made "being a Karen" a problem in the first place — problems that have nothing to do with Karen's gender and everything to do with her behavior.
So if Karen has devolved into the go-to pejorative to describe anyone who makes a fuss about or questions anything, one wonders why isn't there a man's name — like Ken, Donald, Kevin, or (dare I say) Elon — that we can call white men when they're demanding to speak to the proverbial manager, and acting like their needs are above everyone else?
Lest you think the call for a male or gender-neutral "Karen" is tantamount to feminism run amok, I should note that we had this cultural conversation about hurricanes decades ago. In the 1950s, the U.S. decided to give storm systems female names only. This had a peculiar trickle down effect: "Once these storms took on female names, weathermen began talking about them as if they were women," Becky Little writes for History.com. "They used sexist clichés to describe their behavior—saying that this one was 'temperamental,' or that another was 'teasing' or 'flirting' with a coastline." A feminist campaign to give storm systems male names too was won in 1979, leading to the gender-alternating system we have today.
Just as with hurricane naming systems, it's not the name specifically that is sexist, but how it is being used—and who's using it. Considering a woman with a blonde bob memed with the overlay "Felt cute. Might talk to the manager later," it's worth asking why men who exhibit similar entitlement aren't subjected to the same kind of scrutiny.
Indeed, many Karen memes depict said Karens as shrill, nagging — sexist stereotypes, disconnected from any larger racial or class discourse. These are merely the same misogynist stereotypes that have stuck to women for decades.
There is no shortage of white-male names that could serve as a male spin-off of Karen. But a male-equivalent of a "Karen," standing alone throwing a fit at Walmart demanding to speak to the manager, is not something we have the recognizable stereotype of, nor is this meme popular.
Maybe it's time to popularize "Ken," Karen's male equivalent. Or maybe this is just another story about how internet neologisms often devolve into sexist stereotypes.